Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Review: 108 Stitches (2019)

By Ron Darling with Daniel Paisner

What's the next best thing to having dinner with Ron Darling?

Reading "108 Stitches" by Ron Darling.

This is one of those books that's thankfully easy to describe, and easy to read. In a sentence, the former New York Mets pitcher and current broadcaster tells stories about his life in baseball.

This is book number three for Darling, who seems to take some delight in coming up with new twists to describe his life in the game. Last time, for example, he wrote "Game 7, 1986," as he told what it is like to come up short on a personal level in the biggest game of his life - the last game of the World Series - but see his team win the championship in spite of his efforts, and not because of them.

This is even simpler. Most of the new book is devoted to anecdotes about Darling's baseball connections. He started with a list of his teammates over the years, and he played long enough to have a bunch of them, and started jotting down notes. He works his way from A to Z during the course of this book, with some side trips to other personalities.

In other words, it flows like a normal conversation between two people - except only one person is doing the talking. And, let's face it - if you were having dinner with Ron Darling, wouldn't you want to shut up and let him talk?

There are all sorts of stories here, as he goes from the minors to the majors, and from one team to another. Some of them are funny, of course. But others are surprising. Take for example the tale of how Don Zimmer called him over to talk one time when Darling was in the Rangers' organization (pre-Mets), and told him to get a new baseball glove. Why? Zimmer could tell from the dugout when Darling was pitching that the hurler was about to throw a breaking ball through an opening in the back in the glove. In other words, he was tipping his pitches.

Then there's Frank Howard, manager of the Mets early in Darling's stay in New York. Howard, not a favorite of Darling's, apparently drove through an exact change lane in the mid-1980s and threw money in the old coin basket. And waited. And waited. When he was asked what he was waiting for, Howard said he put in a five-dollar bill and was waiting for his change.

Or how about the time he and Keith Hernandez had a meal with Lauren Bacall? He wanted to talk about movies, she wanted to talk about the Mets' chances. Betts turned out to be a baseball fan.

While most baseball lifers have some good stories, it's a little surprising that Darling rarely holds much back here about people he doesn't like at other times. Former Buffalo Bisons' manager Jack Aker hardly spoke to Darling in the minors, leaving the young pitcher mystified. A teammate sprayed Darling one day with tobacco juice, even though it was Darling's first day in the majors and his uniform was nice and clean. Welcome to the Show, rookie. Darling's lack of personal respect for star slugger Frank Thomas leaked into their relationship during TBS broadcasts.

The one odd part comes at the end, when Darling goes off on a decent-sized rant about the state of baseball today. In particular, he's not happy with the how the game is played at times, particularly when it becomes a slave to analytics. That includes such topics as defensive shifts, five-inning starters, and the running game mostly taken out of the tool box. Darling makes some points, but it's a not what I was expecting.

I wouldn't pick this up for the young kiddies who might be fans of Darling's work on broadcasts. The language and a few of the exploits are R-rated. I also know that some people like the authenticity that profanity brings to a story, so they won't be offended.

"108 Stitches" (the number on a baseball, naturally) goes down very easily and quickly. It meets its goal for entertaining the reader ... even if you have to supply the dinner.

Four stars

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Sunday, February 10, 2019

Review: Jim Boeheim and Syracuse Basketball (2018)

By Donald Staffo

Is there anyone who thinks that Jim Boeheim needs to be defended for his record as a basketball coach over the years?

It seems there's at least one person who thinks that way.

Donald Staffo has written a book called "Jim Boeheim and Syracuse Basketball." Let's start with the fact that Boeheim, his family and friends might find this a generally enjoyable review of his basketball career. As for the rest of us, even those of us who are graduates of Syracuse University (guilty), this doesn't work so well.

Boeheim and Syracuse University have been connected for a long, long time. After all, he first came to the school as a freshman in 1962, and never really left. Boeheim played with the legendary Dave Bing as Syracuse had some rare great moments (it was mostly a football school before that) during their time there.

While Bing went on to a great pro career, Boeheim came back to Syracuse and worked his way up to status as an assistant coach. Then in 1976, Roy Danforth left Syracuse to go to Tulane (think about that one in today's context), and Boeheim took over as coach. He's been there ever since, constantly winning bunches of games with teams that sold thousands and thousands of tickets with its entertaining style.

Staffo spends a little time reviewing Boeheim's childhood and those early years at SU. Eventually, though, it's time to go through the seasons, year by year. That's not an easy chore, since there have been a lot of them. It's at least the starting point for the book, as it will be fun for Syracuse fans to see names they haven't contemplated in years. As you'd expect, the great seasons get covered better than the good ones, although it might have been nice to have more than a paragraph or two on at least every single season.

But more simply, this book takes an approach that is a little puzzling. Admittedly, Boeheim has some problems to overcome over the years. Syracuse has been on probation during his tenure a couple of times, and there was also the scandal involving his longtime assistant coach, Bernie Fine. Many college programs have gone under scrutiny for one reason or another, in part because the various rules of the NCAA are hard to follow. The program gets off a little easily here. Boeheim also has had a few odd public moments, which have gotten in the way of showing off the rest (and majority) of his personality. That has made him a little unpopular to some who are a distance away. Still, he knows basketball inside and out and can be quite funny in his own way, which makes him a great interview on general hoop subjects during basketball season.

In the meantime, Boeheim and the Orange usually have won, year after year. He's up with the all-time greats in a number of statistical categories. Boeheim has won a national championship, made some other Final Fours played in many NCAA Tournaments, and produced players that went on to the professional ranks. It's not quite Duke, but it's pretty close.

Still, the tone of the book is frequently defensive. Almost any criticism of Boeheim is mentioned here and then swatted away. Syracuse has been knocked for rarely leaving the Carrier Dome or at least New York State before January 1. Statto correctly points out that most of the "big name" schools do the same thing. But do we really need to go through the schedules of those schools, one by one, to back that up? The effect is rather numbing, since the point has been made.

In addition, much of the criticism concerning Boeheim in Syracuse basketball printed here comes from authorities like social media members. It gives the impression that talk show callers would have had their points reprinted here if the author had access to old tapes. Does anyone really care about someone who doesn't know that much but who believes Boeheim can't recruit? Or coach with the best? I'm in agreement with Staffo when he argues that Boeheim shouldn't have lost career coaching wins as a penalty for NCAA violations. Heck, someone coached those games. It does make writing about milestones in Boeheim's career a little awkward. But really, make the point and move on. More editing would have been really nice.

Speaking of editing, here's a minor point but worth noting. The way this is broken up by chapters is extremely odd. For example, the 1986-87 begins on page 92 at the end of Chapter 5. The National Championship game from that season starts at Chapter 6 on page 94, and the 1987-88 campaign's story begins on page 98. Wouldn't you want everything about that great season to be in the same chapter - and while we're at it, be a lot longer? The 1996 season is split up the same way. Near the end, Chapter 17 is entitled "The 2-3 Zone," but has a section on recruiting - and not about getting players who fit the system. It's a difficult book to read in some ways.

If you aren't sure where Staffo stands on all of this, at the end of the book he takes the lyrics to the song "My Way" and adapts them to fit Boeheim's career. Whew.

There's a better book out there on this subject: Boeheim's autobiography, "Bleeding Orange." He opened up quite a bit there, and it's a fun read. "Jim Boeheim and Syracuse Basketball," meanwhile, probably will leave all but extremely partisan fans on the disappointed side when they finish it.

Two stars

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